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Cognitive Health: 6 Tips to Support Brain Function
03/10/2021
Linda May-Zhang, PhD

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Certain lifestyle choices can make a person look and feel much younger than their chronological age. As we go through life, our habits not only affect our physical health but also play an important role in maintaining our cognitive function and lessen changes of mental decline. Here, we share 6 major ways to help keep your mind sharp, clear, and functional at any age.

1. Get mentally stimulated

Mental stimulation creates new neural connections and may even help generate new brain cells or protect against cell loss. Any sort of mental stimulation will help support your cognitive function. Examples of activities include reading, playing chess, solving crossword puzzles, doing math problems, or working. Activities that require manual dexterity such as painting crocheting, or playing a musical instrument are also great activities for supporting cognitive function.

2. Manage emotional well being

Anxiety, stress, and exhaustion take a toll on cognitive functioning, especially when left unchecked. High levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, leads to long-term changes in the structure and functioning of the brain. The best strategy to deal with stress is to identify the root cause. You may try to avoid triggers of stress by changing the environment by which stress frequently occurs. Other strategies may include stress-reduction activities, like breathing exercises or yoga, as well as eating foods that help combat stress. Getting social support is also important, as less social participation have been associated with an increased risk of dementia [1].

3. Restorative sleep

Another way to manage well-being is to make sure you are getting enough sleep. A good night’s rest puts us in a better mood and gives us more energy the next day. Sleeping also allows our bodies to flush out toxins and is important for storing memories. A lack of sleep can contribute to difficulties in solving problems, focus, or even physical dexterity. Some tips to improve sleep include winding down earlier at night and avoid screen time. Blue light from TVs, computer screens, cell phones or tablets may interfere with melatonin levels and delay your ability to feel sleepy. You may also need to re-examine how much caffeine you may be consuming through the day, and consider switching to only decaf after noon. Other sleep supporting tips can be found here.

4. Stay physically active

Research shows that adults who exercise regularly have increased blood flow to the brain, as well as more small blood vessels in the brain, compared to those who did not exercise regularly [2]. This explains why might physical activity help prevent cognitive decline as people age. A study in animals showed that aerobic exercise can also spur the development of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotion [3]. To keep your brain and your body healthy, go for a run or do your favorite aerobic activity for only 20 minutes a day.

5. Eat for brain health

A healthy nutritious diet helps your mind and your body. Foods rich in nutrients like omega-3 fats, antioxidants, B vitamins, choline and minerals have all been shown to support brain health [4].Foods rich in these nutrients include: fatty fish, nuts and seeds, leafy green veggies, berries, and unsaturated oils like olive oil. Also, watch the sugar! A diet high in sugar not only can impede cognitive function but also negatively impact your heart. To reduce sugar consumption, become familiar with nutrition facts on packaged foods and consider using a natural sugar alternative like stevia.

6. Consume key nutrients or consider supplementations

Aging is associated with many health issues affecting cognitive health, and making sure you are getting enough key nutrients is important to combat the effects of aging. Have you ever heard of Ergothioneine (Ergo)? It is a nutrient that is an amino acid found abundantly in certain mushrooms. A study performed in an elderly population showed that Ergo levels specifically declined beyond 60 years of age, and are further decreased (relative to age-matched subjects) with onset of mild cognitive impairment [5]. This decline suggests that a deficiency in Ergo may be a risk factor of predisposing individuals to cognitive health issues. A second study showed that participants who consumed several portions of mushrooms each week also displayed reduced odds of having mild cognitive impairment [6]. These data support the potential of mushrooms and key bioactive compounds such as Ergo in delaying cognitive impairment, as well as having neuroprotective properties. New studies are now underway to study the effects of cognitive health through Ergo supplementation.

So, consider eating mushrooms on a regular basis. If you don’t like them or don’t think you can eat them weekly, consider taking a supplement to help support Ergo levels in your body.

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References:

[1] Kuiper JS, Zuidersma M, Oude Voshaar RC, Zuidema SU, van den Heuvel ER, et al. (2015) Social relationships and risk of dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies. Ageing Research Reviews. 22:39-57.

[2] Bullitt E, Rahman FN, Smith JK, Kim E, Zeng D, et al. (2009) The Effect of Exercise on the Cerebral Vasculature of Healthy Aged Subjects as Visualized by MR Angiography. American Journal of Neuroradiology. 30(10): 1857-1863.

[3] Nokia MS, Lensu S, Ahtiainen JP, Johansson PP, Koch LG, et al. (2016) Physical exercise increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in male rats provided it is aerobic and sustained. The Journal of Physiology. 594(7): 1855-1873.

[4] Gomez-Pinilla F. (2008) Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 9: 568-578.

[5] Cheah IK, Feng L, Tang RMY, Lim KHC, Halliwell B. Ergothioneine levels in an elderly population decrease with age and incidence of cognitive decline; a risk factor for neurodegeneration? Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2016 Sep 9;478(1):162-167. doi: 10.1016/j.bbrc.2016.07.074. Epub 2016 Jul 19.

[6] Feng L, Cheah I, Ng M, Li J, Chan S, et al. (2019) The Association between Mushroom Consumption and Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Community-Based Cross-Sectional Study in Singapore. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. 1 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-180959

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